Selma Rubin, Earth Day and Gaviota Coast Conservancy 

Selma’s generous participation and contribution showed us that one person absolutely can make a difference for a healthy world

By Nancy Black

Selma Rubin, in 2012 on her special bench at El Capitán Canyon
Photo by and courtesy of Isaac Hernández de Lipa, Mercury Press International

Santa Barbara Earth Day Grandma

By Nancy Black, co-founder of Mercury Press; board, Gaviota Coast Conservancy

To honor the 54th Earth Day, I was invited to share about Selma Rubin and the local birth of the internationally celebrated event, and the natural connection with Gaviota Coast Conservancy (GCC), an organization born from the same Santa Barbara roots. 

Rubin, co-founder of the Community Environmental Council (host of the first Santa Barbara Earth Day), led a successful petition for a ballot measure to block construction of over 1,500 homes on the Gaviota Coast that would have grown the City of Goleta far up the rare open California coastline.  

Selma was a force of nature. She could use charm, wit or directness, depending on the circumstances, with equal ease. Many, including me, saw her as an inspiration and mentor. Always friendly, she was everywhere. She encouraged my board work for GCC and other local groups. She was a fixture at the family parties of mutual friends. That’s where I really got to know Selma. 

My husband and co-founder of Mercury Press, Isaac Hernandez de Lipa, interviewed, filmed and photographed her at events over the years, including for Spanish national newspaper El Mundo. She felt it was important to keep the histories alive, and never tired of retelling them. We were honored to recognize her work internationally and in Spanish. We also featured her in our documentary film Better Together (2019), narrated by Christopher Lloyd, with footage of Selma courtesy of David Cowan, Jon Zuber and Susan Epstein. 

Selma laughed as she told Susan about how she was tipped off during the confrontation with the Gaviota Coast developer, “Are you Selma Rubin from Santa Barbara? There’s a warrant out for your arrest!” 

She was incredibly brave. She was afraid but took action anyway. She faced jail as fearlessly as she faced white supremacists with the ACLU or big oil companies with the EDC. She was a dynamo, and our community was blessed to be her children and grandchildren. 

The Birth of Gaviota Coast Conservancy 

By Mike Lunsford, co-founder and first Director, Gaviota Coast Conservancy

Gaviota Coast Conservancy was a group project of the environmental community who responded to the idea brought up by Bob Keats. As the President of the Board, I was representing EDC (*note: with EDC and CEC co-founders Marc McGinnes and Selma Rubin, among others including EDC attorney Linda Krop) at Environmental Alliance meetings, a group formed in 1993-94 sometime by leaders of Save Ellwood Shores, Marie Dornan and Chris Lange. 

It was a roundtable kind of organization, inviting existing environmental groups to meet and exchange information and ideas. At the time, environmentalists were tired of always being on the defense, defending the environment from fully formed development projects. We were all inclined to try to get ahead of things, so when Bob Keats described his vision of preserving the Gaviota Coast, he had everyone’s attention. 

The idea caught on, resulting in an Environmental Alliance initiative to conduct Coastal Conference 1994 at UCSB. After the conference that spring, about 30 interested leaders, including 3rd District Supervisor, Bill Wallace and his Chief of staff John Buttny began meeting as the Gaviota Coast Coordinating Committee. I was part of that group along with Bob Keats and several other Santa Barbara Surfrider members. Bob’s vision was to promote the concept of a national seashore designation for the Gaviota Coast. 

The Environmental Alliance created the nursery from which GCC was born. 

On Selma

In The Nation (from his piece) by SB Independent editor Nick Welsh

In the shorthand of political caricature, Selma was the little old lady with gaudy window-pane sized eyeglasses and a collection of hats that refused to quit. And in the 47 years Selma called Santa Barbara home, she made it her personal mission to be everywhere, all the time. Or so it seemed. If you went to a concert at UCSB, Selma was there. If there was a speech at the Faulkner Gallery, she was there. And if there was political action afoot, especially of the progressive left-wing variety, most likely Selma helped organize it. That’s been Selma’s way when she first moved to Santa Barbara with her husband Bill in 1964. And it stayed that way until late last year when lung cancer slowed her down.

Selma’s accomplishments during her nearly five decades in Santa Barbara are beyond calculation. She helped start 42 grassroots political organizations dedicated, in various ways, to preserving the environment and promoting social justice. Many of these organizations have since faded from the scene, their purposes served. But, to a startling degree, many remain very much alive, engaged, and formidable – and so established they’ve become enshrined in the institutional alphabet soup that defines the South Coast left: the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), the Community Environmental Council (CEC), the ACLU, SBCAN, and the Fund for Santa Barbara among them. Taken in their totality, the organizations Selma nurtured effectively re-defined the range of political debate in Santa Barbara.

It’s worth remembering that values now taken for granted as safe and inevitable – like the preservation of open space – were not just improbable when Selma started, but positively dangerous. And Selma didn’t just change the political landscape. In ways dramatic, enduring, and very tangible, she – and the organizations she fostered – left an indelible mark on the physical landscape itself, beating back repeated efforts to industrialize the coast with offshore oil development, or to commercialize it with massive sprawling development.

The most glaring case in point involved well-oiled plans by out-of-town developer Jules Berman to construct no less than 1,535 new houses along the Gaviota Coast, near El Capitan, back in 1970. The County Planning Commission approved and so did the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors. There was no Coastal Commission to appeal to; it didn’t exist yet. There wasn’t even a California Environmental Quality Act to sue over; that didn’t exist either. Selma Rubin, then 55, along with her friend Anna Laura Myers, responded by launching a petition drive to put the proposal on the ballot. They needed 9,000 signatures; they collected 12,000. When it went to the voters, Berman’s proposal was rejected by a margin of two to one. District Attorney David Minier, then tight with powerful real estate interests, filed criminal charges against Rubin and Myers, alleging they forged some signatures and tampered with others. If convicted, the two women faced a maximum of 28 years behind bars.

Selma would later recall how frightened she was. But her friends remember her also being gleeful: Minier had played right into Selma’s hands. She made the court case a rallying cry for Santa Barbara’s emerging environmental movement. Selma hired attorneys Frank Sarguis and Stan Roden to defend her, and they battled it out in an intensely publicized, two-week preliminary hearing with a prosecutor who, it turned out, was ashamed to have been assigned the case. In the end, Judge Jack Rickard – a rock-ribbed Republican appointed to the bench by then-Governor Ronald Reagan – tossed out the charges, making clear his disgust that they were ever filed. Later, Minier’s association with real estate developers implicated in numerous arson schemes proved his political undoing. And one of Selma’s defense attorneys, Roden, pushed Minier out of office in one of the county’s most hotly contested DA’s races ever.

Had Selma not intervened and Berman’s 1,535 homes been built, everything between Goleta and El Capitan would have been paved over. Chances are there would be no Gaviota Coast left to worry about saving. As Selma put it in a recent interview, “It would have been good-bye all the way up the coast.” 

Selma Rubin on Wikipedia 

Selma Rubin (March 28, 1915 – March 9, 2012) was an American environmentalist and environmental activist. She was called a co-founder of Earth Day. Rubin was a member or adviser for more than forty organizations spanning more than 57 years. Many of the grassroot organizations she co-founded are still thriving today like the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), the Community Environmental Council (CEC), the ACLUSBCAN, and the Fund for Santa Barbara among them. 

Rubin had been involved in some activism prior to 1969. However, the turning point for her came during the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which began on January 28, 1969, and became the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history at the time. The spill, which lasted for eleven days and polluted the Santa Barbara Channel with almost 100,000 barrels of crude oil, killed thousands of seabirds and other aquatic wildlife. She, along with thousands of other volunteers, responded to the spill, which galvanized her environmental activism. A community stalwart, she served on 42 nonprofit boards since she arrived in Santa Barbara in 1964. In 1970, she successfully led a voter campaign to preserve the Gaviota Coast of California from a proposal to build 1,535 condos in the area.

She and another activist, Anna Laura Myers, collected more than 12,000 signatures for a ballot initiative, which easily defeated the proposal. Rubin spearheaded a compromise for the Gaviota Coast, which allowed for much of the area’s preservation, as well as the construction of the El Capitán Canyon Resort and a campground. She Rubin co-founded the Community Environmental Council, one of the world’s first environmental organizations, in 1974. She also co-founded the Environmental Defense Center in 1977.

Selma Rubin’s Life of Activism 

in Noozhawk By Steve Crandell 

Rubin was an environmentalist before the name came into vogue. Her efforts as a grassroots activist helped create the Get Oil Out organization in response to the oil spill of 1969. She also was involved in the founding of the first Earth Day in Santa Barbara, the Community Environmental Council and the Environmental Defense Council. In 1970, she coordinated the petition drive to save the El Capitan area from a 1,535-unit development in one of the first land-use skirmishes over the Gaviota Coast. In addition, she played a key role in working to get the petition that created the Coastal Commission on the ballot.

Born in 1915, Rubin says her Russian-born Jewish parents provided a caring, harmonious home. Her father told her once: “Live your life so that when you die, people will remember you as having done something good.” She took her dad’s advice to heart. 

Crónicas desde EEUU: 40 Años del Día de la Tierra 

in Spain’s national newspaper, El Mundo, by Isaac Hernández de Lipa 

El Consejo Comunitario del Medioambiente (CEC, por sus siglos en inglés)  me invitó a participar en el Día de la Tierra con la exposición de retratos EcoPortraits, que recoge muchas de las fotografías que he realizado en su mayoría para este periodico, en colaboración con Carlos Fresneda (corresponsal de El Mundo en Nueva York). Para completar la exposición, he tenido la fortuna de retratar a cuatro de los creadores del Día de la Tierra, personas normales y corrientes, que dadas las circunstancias, se elevaron por encima de lo que se sentían capaces.

Una de ellas, Selma Rubin, tiene 95 años y sigue al pie del cañón. Hace casi 40 años salvó toda una zona costera de la construcción de 1500 chalés adosados. Entonces no existía ninguna ley de protección

ambiental. Si esas casas se hubieran construido hubiera creado un efecto dominó de construcción que hubiera cambiado el perfil de la costa central de California, hoy una gran atracción turística.

La protección no está reñida con la explotación comercial. Este terreno genera hoy turismo para todos los bolsillos; hay quienes acampan y quienes pagan 500 dólares la noche por una cabaña de lujo en El Capitán Ranch. Este terreno que salvó Selma sirve como ejemplo de lo que puede hacer la comunidad por defender su patrimonio natural.

El Vertido de Petróleo que sirvió de chispa para el Día de la Tierra

El Mundo, on The Oil Spill that Sparked Earth Day

The Community Environmental Council that Selma co-founded has compiled this brief history of the local Santa Barbara Earth Day and they are about to unveil a new historical timeline for their website to honor this year’s celebration. 

See you at the Gaviota Coast Conservancy table at the Earth Day celebration at Alameda Park on Saturday, April 27! 

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